Having seen this book a million times, I never paid close enough attention to realize that the boy on the cover is an Afghani boy and that half of the story is told from an American girl’s perspective and half from young Sadeed. My trusted librarian friend advised that the book is best taught through a discussion on what rules exist in Islam regarding gender roles, and why they exist. And after reading it, I quite agree. The story is very straight forward and predictable, and I really doubt most kids would find this to be Clements best work, however, I think if the students could be directed to critically evaluate WHY Sadeed’s community doesn’t want him communicating directly with American Abby, they might realize more about their parents own rules and reasoning, and be able to talk about them objectively. The book is 183 pages and an Accelerated Reader Level 5.3.
Sixth grader Abby is in danger of being held back if she doesn’t keep up on her homework and do extra credit. The extra credit assignment is to do a pen-pal project with a student in Afghanistan, unfortunately Sadeed, is the most qualified, but the village elders don’t think it appropriate for a girl and a boy to communicate. As a result, Sadeed’s younger sister, Amira, is selected to write back to Abby with Sadeed’s help. Sadeed is annoyed by the process and begins writing to Abby independently, until events force him to reconsider. The book is meant to show how people are universally the same, even when they seem so different. Abby loves to rock climb and doesn’t like school, Sadeed loves school and has never thought to climb a mountain. Through their letters they realize they have more in common than originally thought.
WHY I LIKE IT:
The book discusses the Taliban and how fortunate Amira is to attend school. It talks about Afghan culture in a fair light, and doesn’t paint all in Sadeed’s village with one stroke. His parents, the village elders, the principal, all are seen as different individuals, with different thoughts and in a positive light. If anything Abby’s world is seen as more bland and presented with a broad stroke of uncaring characters. Sadeed and his family practice Islam and it shapes their moral conduct as well as their every day lives. Islam is not what the book is about, but it does define the characters and their environment. I like that it is age appropriate in dealing with complex topics of gender roles, and societal customs, I think our students can relate to both Abby and Sadeed (and even Amira), however I think that the characters would soon be forgotten. While the book has a lot going for it, it seems to come up a little short. If I do this as a book club discussion I would keep it 4th through 6th graders, I think the older students would be bored by it. I think that the discussion would be more fruitful than the book alone. InshaAllah, if one can get through the tediousness of, if Abby will get to go to seventh grade, and reach the top of the rock wall, there is a sweet story of building bridges and trying to see the world from other people’s perspectives; as well as opening the door to understanding why religiously and culturally our parents set up the boundaries that they do.
The younger sister teases her older brother that he has a crush on her pen pal, and one could argue either way that he does, but, it is clean in terms of language, violence, and anything clearly objectionable.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
The discussion guide is found in the back of some editions, if not you can see it here: